Where was the Sunni – Shiite debate in 2002-2003?

You’d think that what appears to be one of the most incendiary and poisonous blood-feuds on the planet — the Shiite/Sunni strife in Iraq — would have been Topic A or nearly so in the run-up to the war in Iraq, for war planners and particularly those critical of the war. However, the Sunni – Shiite internecine death struggle does not appear to have been at the top of the list of concerns of war boosters and war critics. Here is a NYT report on the very eve of the war, March 14, 2003, which finally mentions the topic in paragraph 7:

The cost of postwar reconstruction of Iraq will be at least $20 billion a year and will require the long-term deployment of 75,000 to 200,000 troops to prevent widespread instability and violence against former members of Saddam Hussein’s government, a panel of national security experts say in a new study.

The panel, consisting of senior American officials from Republican and Democratic administrations, was organized by the Council on Foreign Relations. It concludes that President Bush has failed ”to fully describe to Congress and the American people the magnitude of the resources that will be required to meet the post-conflict needs” of Iraq.

The panel was led by James R. Schlesinger, secretary of defense in the Nixon and Ford administrations, and Thomas R. Pickering, ambassador to the United Nations under Mr. Bush’s father. Others on the panel included Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1993 to 1997 and is now retired, and Jeanne J. Kirkpatrick, who served in senior positions in the Reagan administration.

They urged Mr. Bush ”to make clear to Congress, the American people and the people of Iraq that the United States will stay the course” in Iraq by financing a ”multibillion-dollar” reconstruction program and seeking formal Congressional endorsement of it….

One risk arises from the aspirations for independence by ethnic Kurds in the north, which could set off a conflict with Turkey. Another stems from the deep grievances of the Shiite population against the Sunni minority that has dominated the country since its founding. How political leaders are chosen and how Iraq’s oil resources are managed also carry the seeds of conflict that will demand significant American resources.

We also found this in a NYT story on March 1, 2003 — but it was in paragraph 12 of the story:

It is also hard to find anyone who will dare speculate what Iraq may look like after Mr. Hussein. But outside experts say the nightmare chain of events will be that the Baath Party will collapse quickly and completely and Iraq will tumble into civil war, with its deep divisions between the Kurds, Arabs, Sunni Muslims and Shiite Muslims.

We found the references to Shiite – Sunni problems in the very anti-war New York Times, but they were not highlighted or featured at the tops of stories. By contrast, we also found endorsements of the promise of Iraqi democracy, this one by Barham Salih in the NYT in February 2003:

When Colin Powell appears at the United Nations today, he is expected to talk about Iraq’s efforts to build weapons of mass destruction and its ties with terrorist organizations. Those are excellent reasons for overthrowing Saddam Hussein. As we all know, there are other powerful reasons, too — most notably the desire of my people to be free from repression and to plant the seeds of democracy in soil that has for too long been given over to tyranny.

In my office in Sulaimaniya, in the part of Iraq already free from Saddam Hussein’s control, I meet almost every day with travelers from Baghdad and other parts of Iraq. Without exception they tell me of the continued suffering inflicted by the Iraqi regime, of the hope secretly nurtured by so many enslaved Iraqis for a free life, for a country where they can speak without retribution.

Most of my Iraqi compatriots — Shiite and Sunni Arab, Turkmen and Assyrian, Muslim, Christian and Yazidi — have been united by what they have endured under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party. They want the overthrow of a regime that used chemical weapons against the Kurds and wasted a nation’s natural resources on wars rather than schools. They want democracy in Iraq. These are goals worthy of the world’s support.

Those who doubt the prospects of a liberated Iraq should examine the record of Iraqi Kurdistan since 1991. Under our autonomous regional government, we have used our share of oil revenues to invest not in chemical and biological weapons, but in education and health. We have tripled both the number of schools and doctors since 1991, and we have reduced infant mortality to its lowest level ever in our region. We have a free and diverse news media, with hundreds of newspapers, magazines and television stations. We respect the rights of minorities.

These achievements should be celebrated as a model for the rest of Iraq. Indeed, we Kurds are willing to give up our dreams of an independent Kurdistan in order to bring our expertise in governing to a new democratic Iraq.

So what looks today like the number one problem of Iraq was not particularly highlighted — even by the war’s most ardent MSM opponent — in the immediate run-up to the war. We saw in the Ralph Peters article this statement, delivered as the current Conventional Wisdom: “The deadly hatred goes too deep between Shia and Sunni (killing Jews is just for practice). You can’t broker peace between fanatics.” How come this wasn’t the CW three years ago?

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